Carol recently fell into a depression after breaking up with John, her boyfriend of a year. Tearfully, she told me, “He’s not what I thought he was. Worse, I just saw him with another girl, but I still want to take him back again! What’s wrong with me, and why can’t I let him go?” Broken relationships are hard anytime, but especially during the holidays, in which relationships can be stressed by additional social pressures. When we fall in love, often we go for a long time seeing only the ideal parts of a person and overlooking their character flaws (like John’s unfaithfulness). We can miss the warning signs of problems until eventually we can no longer ignore them, and our fantasies of the person collapse along with the relationship, leaving us depressed and disillusioned. Here are 7 insights Carol gained through our talks. If you are struggling with a “holiday heartbreak,” they may be of help to you!
1. She became aware of her anger toward John for his betrayal of her trust. This was a positive thing! Anger can bring the insight, clarity, and reality we need to understand where we went wrong in our assessment of the person.
2. She learned that she had put John on a pedestal, glossing over the many times he was unreliable, because she did not want another failed relationship. She had to face the fact that John was just not that "into" her.
3. She determined that in the future, she would reserve judgment until enough time passed that she could evaluate the guy more realistically by looking at both his positive and negative qualities based on his behavior in different situations. Then she could decide if the positives outweighed the negative, and more importantly, if she could accept and work with his human limitations and deficits. (Everyone has them!)
4. She realized that in general she had been too dependent on men for her happiness and needed to work on “individuation,” i.e. developing her own sense of self-esteem and identity independent of a love relationship.
5. She used her anger to compile a list of reasons why John would not have been a good long-term relationship for her. Then she listed the traits she needed in a relationship in order to make it a happy one.
6. She identified an “addictive” behavioral pattern with John consisting of his unfaithfulness, her confrontation of him, a fight, break up, and Carol’s “forgiving” him and returning to the old status quo with no real change.
7. Finally, she determined to “break” the addiction by resisting the urge to re-unite with him and turning instead to friends and family for support. With their help, she was able to refrain from “vegging out” and obsessing on her loss, and instead, try out some low-keyed social, community service, and religious activities that did not require her to bring a date. She returned to the gym, had friends over for a get together, and started a new hobby, photography. Carol realizes that getting over John will take time, but she has a solid strategy to get there. Even better, she has grown from this letdown, gained a stronger sense of self, and acquired the tools to establish a solid, happy, and mature relationship in the future. She is working on converting her holiday heartbreak to holiday health. Go girl!
*To learn more about this topic, see Keep Your Eye on the Prize—a Young Person’s Guidebook to Adulthood, Chapter 5:“The Emotional Compass Point—Falling in Love, Projecting the Ideal” (www.keepyoureyeontheprize.org).